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HBS Hypes Gender Initiative Launched Last Spring

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Harvard Business School (HBS) today took to its MBA Voices Blog to introduce the HBS Gender Initiative to those who may not be familiar with it. Established in fall 2014, the initiative’s public launch took place in May 2015, coinciding with the release of interesting research coming out of HBS related to gender issues.

That research included a study published last spring by HBS Professor Kathleen McGinn that pinpointed advantages enjoyed by children of working mothers. Surveying 50,000 adults in 25 countries, she and her colleagues found that the daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, had higher rates of employment and were more likely both to supervise others and earn higher incomes than those of moms who stayed at home—in a staggering 24 of the 25 countries studied. Sons of working moms, while their careers were not measurably impacted, were found to contribute more time each week to childcare and housework—which research has shown to increase women’s involvement in the workforce and perhaps impact the stability of marriages.
“There are very few things, that we know of, that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother,” McGinn said in a statement when the research was released.

Later that same month, HBS Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community Robin Ely released her own research on the toll that a 24/7 work culture takes on families and gender equality. “These 24/7 work cultures lock gender inequality in place, because the work-family balance is recognized primarily as a women’s problem,” Ely told the New York Times. “The very well-intentioned answer is to give women benefits, but it actually derails women’s careers. The culture of overwork affects everybody.”

Gender Initiative Seeks to Bring Research Findings to Bear on Discussions of Gender
Ely leads the new Gender Initiative at HBS, which is designed to bring together precisely this type of research taking place at Harvard and help ensure its dissemination throughout the HBS community. Placing this rigorous research at the fingertips of HBS’s students will equip them to ground discussions about gender in fact, helping people make better-informed decisions as they relate to themselves, their families, their companies and their communities, Ely said in May.

On a grander scale, the Gender Initiative’s mission is “to accelerate the advancement of women leaders and promote gender equity in business and society,” according to the recent MBA Voices Blog post. But recognizing that gender shapes the lives of both men and women and often intersects other axes of inequality—race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, to name but a few—those involved with the initiative view their work as extending beyond simply addressing women’s underrepresentation in leadership.

In addition to supporting related research and its dissemination, the Gender Initiative will also focus on course development, case writing and building a community devoted to advancing women leaders and gender equity. A conference that in fact predated the Gender Initiative—the Gender & Work Symposium, held each spring—will help with the community building, bringing together academics and practitioners to share research and ideas.

In addition, the Gender Initiative is working to develop new ways to share insights via video, print and social media. Its webpage serves as a central repository. The initiative is also leading a major, ongoing study of the career and life paths HBS alumni choose, called “Life and Leadership After HBS.”

According to today’s post on the MBA Voices Blog, one of the greatest challenges facing the HBS Gender Initiative’s efforts are stereotypes that misinform public opinion about gender. “Unfortunately, much of the conventional wisdom about gender and other identity categories are rooted in stereotypes and other beliefs that are not supported by the evidence,” read the post.

As an example, the research released last May by HBS’s McGinn showing clear advantages for children of working mothers flies in the face of still prevalent perceptions that the increase in working moms is bad for society. Indeed, a recent Pew Research Study found that 41 percent of adults held the negative view, compared to only 22 percent who saw more working moms as a positive. These kinds of discrepancies between public opinion and fact borne out by research are precisely what the Gender Initiative hopes to combat.

“Grounding the conversation about diversity in rigorous research is essential to moving forward and making meaningful progress in our organizations and society more broadly,” read today’s post.

The HBS Gender Initiative has the staunch support of HBS Dean Nitin Nohria. Nohria, appointed in 2010 by Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first-ever female president, has pledged since joining the business school to help redefine gender relations on campus. In January 2014, Nohria promised to increase the number of female protagonists in HBS case studies from 9 to 20 percent by 2019.

When the Gender Initiative launched publicly last spring, he noted HBS’s leadership role in defining the roles and functions of business and effective business practice. “With the launch of this initiative, we want to have a similar and lasting impact on the way the world understands and acts upon gender-related matters,” he said in a statement.

Stay tuned for subsequent posts, in which we’ll drill down to see whether and how the HBS Gender Initiative is measurably changing the experience of MBA students at the school—as well as what other leading business schools are doing as they square off against the issue of gender equity.